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Fiction Review    




Yonder Stands Your Orphan
by Barry Hannah
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001
ISBN:  0-87113-811-5



Mortimer is his last name.
Man is his first name.  Only, it isn’t a name, it’s what he is.      

As in Everyman, the late 15th century morality play, Man Mortimer is both the main character of Hannah’s newest novel and the embodiment of us all.  As in the ancient play, Everyman, Man Mortimer is understood by none and cannot get any of his friends to understand him.   

But, as Everyman was a morality play, this book is one of immorality: 

“That of our lives and ending shows

How transitory we be all day.

This matter is wondrous precious”

from Everyman


It is notable that he is not called by his name, Man.  Not once, not even by his own parents who show up at the end of the story.

Set around a lake in Mississippi, the place where Mortimer abides is peopled with trailer trash, blue collar types, yellows, browns, Cubans, French, whores, ex-doctors, ex-military, the disenfranchised, the sick, and the dying.   

Centered around the lives of this melting pot circles Mortimer, working his deeds around them, which consists of taking various and sundry knives from his extensive collection and attacking and slicing the inhabitants of this community, one by one. 

For Mortimer is mad, truly mad.  How do I know?  Despite the awful attacks, he never questions his sanity or reasoning!  Even after he is cut himself, and also nearly beaten to death in a hateful attack of revenge on one of his own employees, he never stops.  He is driven by something within that hates and is not quenched; not sated by the whores who work for him, nor by his own bloodlust, his pedophilia, or destruction of anything humanly worthy about him.  He touches all, and destroys all.

Yet, he sees it all as good.  I grow, he says.  I am getting better. As a boy, he sits at his window and cries for no discernible reason at all, looking out into the chicken yard as it rains.  His own father recognizes that the boy is unstable even then.

And he looks like the dead singer, Conway Twitty.  It is how he sneaks up on people and gains their acceptance-just before a bloody attack.  He doesn’t look dangerous.  But then, neither did Ted Bundy.

The populace of the lake are case studies of dissatisfaction with life.  They hate each other, they hate life, they hate other groups or individual peoples, they don’t want to be happy, and they loathe being sad.  They sing, they are silent.  God, you don’t know what they want!

So, where’s the juice in all this.  Or, as the old commercial once blared: “Where’s the beef?”

It is in the writing.  In the writing. I had turned thirty pages before I blinked an eyelid.  Halfway through, I choked on the words in front of me.  By the last two chapters, I was nearly in tears.


“All theological discussion will become shameful comedy.  He has said people are snakes who love talking late at night about God.  They don’t know God, but they surround themselves with other pretenders.” [Page 278]

“Then she remembered.  They had no money.  Even nature palled when you had no money.  Nature was without religion sometimes when you looked at it poor, and all the creatures seemed bedraggled and begging, hardly getting by.  You saw a fat one and wondered.  Where was she getting her orders?” [Page 310]


Passages like these, that, as Hannah states of one character, “widens the mind,” is what keeps your eyes glued to the page.  The first lines concerning the attempts at religiosity by the townspeople is true.  They have a slanted view of God and nature, all molded by their own viewpoints about life.  Some at the lake are animal worshippers, and others tote guns because Christ said turn the cheek and not a bloody face.

The line stating that, “Nature was without religion sometimes when you looked at it poor,” should be in the national anthem of this country.  A religious life is equated in the television evangelist’s message today with great wealth; you know, the “Name it and Claim it” crowd?  What version of the Bible do they find that in?  And yet, it is where we are and what we have become.

Yet, these things, the irresponsibility and insanity of life, and nature which betrays all, reducing oldsters to chemotherapy, projectile vomiting and death-what is that?

If you need a different way of looking at life’s insanities-a way that can help you cope with it all-pick up the book. 


Robert L. Hall
Southern Scribe Reviews

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